Movie Review - Shane

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Shane is a strange man to be the hero of a western—strange because he comes in as a man who provokes so many questions about his past, his purpose, his plans for the future, and many other things; and he leaves with almost all of the questions still unanswered. Who he is, is something no one ever fully finds out. He’s a loner, and a stranger to store-bought clothes, but he can dance country dances, and he’s willing to stay and give his all for men who aren’t even sure they want to stay, themselves. Shane knows how to avoid a fight, but Shane also knows how to fight. And he’s fast—fast on the draw. Who he is, and what he’s doing here—those are the two biggest questions we face. And the best we can say, at the end of the movie, is that Shane was a good man, and he was here doing good things… which is almost surprising, considering that it was a George Stevens movie.

If Shane is a strange man to be the hero of a successful western, we might very well say that George Stevens is a strange man to have directed one, for a couple of reasons. Stevens’ technique was improvisational; his protagonist of choice, conflicted; his themes heavy and usually cockeyed. His long months in the editing room usually left his audiences with a film full of artistic but somewhat jumbled—at times, superfluous—camera shots, characters who don’t know who they are or what they’re doing any more than we do, and a message-based plot that forgoes the traditional happy ending. Shane did indeed feature a bit of all those elements, and yet somehow managed to come away from George Stevens’ editing room without being artistically haphazard… or a catalyst for a corrupt worldview.

So what exactly does a George Stevens film about a man like Shane—a story about life in the middle of the range wars—a western in which the cowboys are the bad guys—have going for it… and against it?

For it, there are really quite a number of strong, positive pictures of ideas one would expect to find vandalized in a western as complex as this one—pictures of biblical ideas, even. We see that work—really taking dominion of the land—is good, and that it’s a job for families, not just for bachelors or lawmen, even out west. We see that the family structure, itself, is good. That boys can be shaped by manly role models. That manliness isn’t about fighting, but that it isn’t about not fighting, either. That there is a certain glory in fighting, because there are some things worth fighting for. That a gun is a tool, as good or as bad as the man using it. That loyalty works both ways.

However, because Shane is a complex film, we also see that there are two sides to everything, and we see bits and pieces of a bad side, mixed in with the good one. Private property—your home—is worth fighting for, but is it worth dying for, as some of the characters suggest? At what point does it stop being cowardly and disloyal to your neighbors to give up your claim and head back east, when the cattlemen are using fear tactics to get you to do just that? Can you ever “break the mold” and stop being what you once were? It’s hard to tell, in this movie.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Is it acceptable to every family for a filmmaker to incorporate alcohol abuse into the story, as long as it pertains only to the bad and the reckless characters, as long as it never ends well… or humorously? (And, is it acceptable to everyone out there for the drinking man to also be a strong Confederate sympathizer?)

Sexual Content:
When should a man step in and do something about his loving wife’s attraction to his hired man? Marian’s faithfulness to her husband never fails, in word, deed or presumably in thought, but the mild romantic tension between her and Shane—though resolved—is an area of the film that could rightly cause some discomfort. It at least gives a little clearer picture of the subtle intimacy of dancing as a couple, to see Marian dancing hand-in-hand with her husband’s friend, rather than with her husband. If only there was a way to achieve that same awkward comparison when dealing with the issue of a married actor kissing an unmarried actress—even when they are husband and wife on screen… like in this movie.

Shane is briefly shown shirtless, in the context of hard physical work, but in the presence of his employer’s wife, and, of course, every other female in the audience.

For the movie Shane, we might mention the several, apparently sincere Christian references. Against it, we might mention minced oaths like “gosh”, “by Godfrey” and even “gosh o’mighty”. There is, too, a “by Jupiter”, making four instances of objectionable language… unless you count a couple of less-than-respectful sighs or groans from the little boy when his parents tell him to do something he doesn’t like.

Violent and Intense Content:
There is one more thing that needs to be mentioned, that made George Stevens different from many other directors of westerns in that era. He did not hesitate to have the good guys beat in the fight, or beat up in it… or killed. He wanted to send a message to people about a lot of different things, and he succeeded, if only in showing his audience that gunslingers were ruthless men, and that .45 caliber handguns were powerful weapons. There’s no more blood in George Stevens’ Shane, or even any more death, than in the average Gene Autry or John Wayne picture—less, perhaps—but how it is portrayed can make a great deal of difference, and in this case, it makes it a great deal more intense.

With all the questions we might ask ourselves about Shane, the movie, those two questions come back about Shane, the man: Who was he, and what was he doing? Shane was not a perfect hero, any more than he was in a perfect film, but at the end of the movie we see him—in spite of his faults, and in spite of George Stevens’ faults—as a man of honor, of courage, and of steadfastness. What he did was to help his friend to disciple his son, to take dominion over the piece of earth that God put in his charge, to stand up for the things he ought to stand up for, to fight the battles that needed fought. The last question we have to answer for ourselves is, does Shane, the movie, help us do the same things? I am inclined to believe that it does. Will the next movie we watch do likewise?

Because of the intensity of the violence, and the maturity required to deal with the more true-to-life, two-sided issues in this film, I suggest saving Shane for audiences no younger than twelve, and it might be wise for parents to watch alongside the children who are just barely within the age recommendation.

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